A shorter version of this chapter will appear in Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim (eds.) The War for Palestine: rewriting the history of 1948 War . 2nd edition Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007
Non-Saudis initially wrote the modern history of Saudi Arabia. Although chronicles, private papers, and primary sources existed inside and outside the country, until very recently Western and Arab historians produced modern Saudi historiography. Saudi Arabia was one of the latest countries to establish modern history departments and research centres. It was only in the 1960s that the ‘modern’ Saudi historian emerged after the profession was dominated by ulama who played the double role of religious scholar and chronicler. Up to the 1960s, the past was theological rather than historical, a reflection of the predominance of historical narratives propagated by religious scholars.
It was only after the first oil boom of the 1970s that the Saudi government turned its attention to systematically producing the great historical narrative that most Arab regimes had already produced and propagated to consolidate the nascent nation states that emerged in the post World War II era. Unlike in other Arab countries, and with the exception of one or two Saudi historians, modern Saudi historical research centres relied on Arab scholars, who were either seconded from their own academic institutions or had settled in the country. Even then, and because of serious human resource shortage, Saudi school and university history text books, and even the religious curriculum, were often written by Arabs, mainly Levantine and Egyptians who were entrusted with the task of narrating Saudi Arabia.
The narration was meant to establish and enforce two important state legitimacy narratives, one reflected the need to legitimate the state internally, the other reflected the need to legitimate the state externally in the Arab and Islamic contexts.
The establishment of King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives in Riyadh (known as al-Dara) in1972 marked the beginning of institutionalised official historiography, after a long period of laisser-faire approach to narrating the past. The role of this research centre in shaping historical imagination became paramount. In the 1980s an ambitious government scheme materialised in sending at least thirty Saudi students to various American universities to write PhD dissertations on Al-Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, thus establishing modern Saudi historiography. The role of such students and that of al-Dara reached a climax with the 1999 centennial celebrations that coincided with the publication of hundreds of history books, foreign memoirs, translation of foreign testimonies, and official letters and sermons by King Abdulaziz ibn Saud (1876-1953) hereafter Ibn Saud, all marking ‘one hundred year of development, prosperity and political wisdom’.i The publication of selected documents and letters from various archival sources marked the beginning of documenting Saudi history from an official point of view.ii
Posted by Main at 08:58 PM. Filed under: Research Interest •